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A decentralizing or centralizing force?

I was on two panel discussions over the last week and, as is the case with all real estate panels, the topic of parking invariably came up, as did the impact of autonomous vehicles.

There seems to be a general consensus that the advent of driverless cars will result in less demand for parking. Every developer I know is trying to build as little parking as possible and is thinking about how – when the time comes – they might convert their parking into something more productive. I have yet to speak to anyone who is building excess parking in order to prepare for autonomy.

Where there’s a split, however, is whether autonomous vehicles will represent a decentralizing or a centralizing force for our cities. Historically, new technologies have lowered transportation costs and encouraged decentralization. Before the advent of rail, the US population hugged the coasts, because it was cheaper to navigate across the Atlantic than it was to move inland.

A similar phenomenon also played out with our streetcar suburbs and with our car-oriented suburbs. These new technologies made it possible for people to travel further distances in order to get to work and other places. So it is not at all surprising that many people today are inferring that autonomous vehicles will produce this same outcome.

But there is a counterargument. 

We know that the demand for transportation services is highly elastic. Uber and other ride sharing apps have demonstrated this to us. Lower fares translate into dramatic increases in demand. So the opposing argument is that as the cost per kilometer drops – autonomous electric vehicles are going to be much more cost effective to operate – we’re going to see boatloads of induced demand.

This induced demand will then force us to look toward road pricing and other demand management tools in order to cope, which then begs the question: How much cheaper and more convenient will autonomous vehicles really be? 

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that autonomous vehicles should correct many of the inefficiencies currently caused by humans acting like humans. There is also the opportunity to operate these autonomous vehicles more like public transit than as personal vehicles. And that will have a profound impact on urban mobility.

Still, it is not yet clear, at least for me, that autonomous vehicles will be the decentralizing force that many assume they will be.

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